How These Falcons Came Back From the Brink of Extinction in Wisconsin

Decades of work have brought acrobatic urban peregrines back.

The birds inside the beige pet carrier are quiet until the door opens. With a gloved hand, Greg Septon reaches inside and pulls out a bewildered peregrine falcon chick just about three weeks old. It resembles a giant cotton ball, coated in all-white fluff, with cartoonishly long feet and a beak too big for its head.

Immediately, it starts to screech. Septon holds the bird on its back and gently places it onto a towel as it flaps its underdeveloped wings in protest. Then, he places a corner of the towel over the bird’s head. Simple, but effective – without the ability to see the humans gathered around, the bird calms down.

Greg Septon (left) banding a peregrine falcon; Photo by Luke Wein

Now the work can begin. Septon reaches for two sets of metal bands to wrap around the bird’s legs. Engraved on them are identification numbers that allow it to be tracked for the rest of its life. 

Banding the baby birds is a novel spectacle for the half-dozen onlookers inside the conference room at the Port Washington Generating Station. But for Septon, who leads Wisconsin’s peregrine recovery program, it’s a yearly routine. Every spring, he drives to several dozen nesting sites around the state in a mad dash to band every chick while they’re between 18 and 24 days old. 



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A peregrine surveys Milwaukee’s Downtown from the edge of the roof of the U.S. Bank Center; Photo by Greg Septon

“You get beyond 24, 25 days of age and these birds become more mobile,” Septon explains. “And you could inadvertently scare one out of the nest box and they could fall to their death.” Any younger than 18 days, and it’s tough to tell them apart by sex – an important factor, since females are larger than males and need bigger bands for their legs.

Septon has banded more than 1,300 peregrines since his recovery efforts began in 1987. Today, more than 30 nest boxes rest atop power plants, factories and office buildings around Wisconsin, mostly in urban areas. Peregrines – once on the brink of extinction – have learned to make a home in these human-made habitats. And year after year, they keep coming back.

Peregrine falcons are ruthless hunters, sealing their place at the top of the food chain by regularly eating other birds. If you peek inside their nests, it’s not unlikely to see the scattered wings of terns and pigeons or the headless bodies of blue jays. The falcons are known for their signature hunting dive – maneuvering at dizzying speeds of over 200 mph to grab a meal in midair with their talons. 

Yet the predators once fell prey to human inventions. Shortly after World War II, the chemical DDT was introduced as an agricultural insecticide. Exposure to DDT caused peregrines, and other hunters like bald eagles and ospreys, to disappear from the tall cliffs they once called home. The shells of their eggs became thin and easily breakable, and hatching new generations was an impossible task.

By the mid-1960s, not a single peregrine falcon lived east of the Mississippi River. “When I was a little kid growing up, there weren’t any peregrines here,” Septon, a Racine native, recalls. “I used to daydream in high school about putting a dome over the quarry in Racine and getting peregrines to nest in those cliffs … the human-built cliffs.”

Photo by Luke Wein

In addition to peregrines, Septon was also interested in other large birds. As a teenager, Septon would climb into trees and band horned owls and red-tailed hawks. In 1976, he got a job as a taxidermist for the Milwaukee Public Museum. While working at the museum, he connected with others who were keen on the idea of restoring the peregrines in Wisconsin and in 1987, Septon spearheaded a captive banding program to bring the birds back to the state. 

In 1988, Milwaukee became the first city in Wisconsin since the 1960s to see a successful peregrine nest. Septon began to build nest boxes for the birds, finding them tall places to nest in urban areas, on top of power plants, office buildings and factories.

Since then, the birds have made a comeback. They’re still on Wisconsin’s endangered species list, but their numbers have gone from zero to at least 43 nesting pairs; Septon believes there were 24-30 nesting pairs in the state before DDT was introduced. 

“Over the past 30 years, no one in Wisconsin has had a greater impact on the progress toward recovery of the peregrine falcon than Greg Septon,” says Sumner Matteson, an avian ecologist at the Department of Natural Resources. Septon shares his data on the peregrine populations with the DNR to help them track the birds’ recovery.

Photo by Luke Wein

The nature of the program is “unique,” adds DNR conservation biologist Rich Staffen. Most bird recovery programs are managed internally at the DNR, but Septon works independently with private and public organizations to restore the birds’ numbers.

Still, the falcon’s comeback isn’t a one-man success story. Over the years, dozens of businesses and volunteers have helped fund and manage the nest boxes. Many get involved with events like chick banding, naming competitions and educational outreach. 

WEC Energy Group hosts four nest boxes at its power plants in Oak Creek, Milwaukee, Port Washington and Rothschild. Before COVID-19, the company invited schools and youth organizations to observe chick bandings. “Even if it impacts just one [student], those are the future conservationists and stewards that we need to carry on environmental traditions,” says Mike Grisar, who as WEC Energies’ environmental team leader helps manage the company’s nest boxes.

The birds also leave an impact on people within the companies. At Molson Coors in Milwaukee, development brewer Emily Harrison monitors a box atop the 12-story building with the big red Miller sign. Nesting season is an exciting time for her and her colleagues. 

“It’s like the whole campus comes alive,” Harrison describes. “Everyone’s tuning in, especially when the eggs are hatching, or are watching for eggs to be laid. It’s just such an exciting community feeling all around.”

Cameras at the nest boxes give virtually anyone inside or outside the company a front-row seat to the birds’ lives. That comes with its own fair share of dramatic moments, like seeing prey ripped apart in the nest, or even a fight between two territorial peregrines.

Every year, Harrison helps facilitate a contest to name the chicks. A chick born in 2020, Brew, was recently spotted nesting in Minneapolis.

But that’s not the farthest the peregrines will travel. Septon says that falcons born in Wisconsin have been spotted in Austin, Texas; New York City and even Barquisimeto, Venezuela. 

“Peregrines don’t know geographic boundaries.” Septon says. “It’s just one big world.” 


This story is part of Milwaukee Magazine‘s August issue.

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